$400,000 Given : City's Donations to Aid Homeless

Times Staff Writer

The Ventura City Council this week breathed new life into plans by two nonprofit agencies to provide shelter for the homeless.

In a unanimous vote Monday, the council gave $200,000 toward Project Understanding's beleaguered proposal to convert an old Ventura Avenue apartment building into a shelter for homeless families.

At the same time, the council gave another $200,000 to help expand the financially troubled Zoe Christian Center in Oxnard, the only permanent emergency shelter for Ventura County's estimated 2,000 to 4,000 homeless.

"The city of Ventura, by doing this, will hopefully be an example to the rest of the communities in the county," Councilman John Sullard said. "It's all of our problems."

The grants culminated several months of speculation over who would receive money from the city, which last fall offered to help fund proposals aimed at helping homeless families.

The most controversial of the proposals was the $1.7-million plan by Project Understanding to relocate 14 families living in the De Anza Hotel on Ventura Avenue and convert the building into an 84-bed shelter serving 21 families.

News of the project last month sparked the ire of the dozens of low-income tenants, some of whom had once been homeless themselves, as well as nearby merchants who complained that such a facility would scare away customers.

Project Understanding officials themselves began to grow angry as they watched deadlines for several federal grants slip away while they waited for the city to commit to the project.

Finally, frustrated by the costly and time-consuming process, Project Understanding's executive director, Pat Driskell, sent a letter to the council March 29 withdrawing the proposal.

'Out of Our League'

"We were out of our league when we chose to respond" to the city's request for proposals, the letter stated. "And the league we were invited to enter is not one we choose to join."

Driskell, however, said he changed his mind in subsequent weeks at the urging of city officials and the Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., the Saticoy-based low-cost housing developer that agreed to be a partner in the venture.

"Our decision to withdraw was naive and premature," Driskell said. "It was a mistake, plain and simple."

He said the city grant would allow his group, which has been serving the county's poor for more than a decade, to still apply for matching funds under a state program. The County Board of Supervisors gave the group another $74,000 on Tuesday.

"It was costly and unfortunate to have the delay, but all was not lost," said Driskell, adding that residents would be notified within six months about relocation. Project Understanding and Cabrillo have offered to pay about $4,800 in relocation compensation per apartment, a sum they say would be sufficient to land the tenants in at least equal, if not much improved, living quarters.

Additional Beds

Council members said they favored the Project Understanding and Zoe proposals over other competitors because the two groups are already providing services to the homeless and would be able to quickly translate the $200,000 grants into additional beds.

In fact, debate at the Monday meeting focused not on the Project Understanding shelter, but the wisdom of granting money to the Zoe shelter in Oxnard.

Councilman Richard Francis, despite voting in favor of the grants, said he was uncomfortable giving scarce funds to a project in another city. In addition, he said, the grant to Zoe "smacks of a bus-ticket mentality . . . that we will just send our homeless to Oxnard and let them live there."

But Councilwoman Nan Drake defended a regional approach.

"One thing we tried to do was not be so parochial," she said. "We know the needs of Ventura . . . but we were trying to reach a little further than that."

Zoe on Tuesday also received $8,800 from the Oxnard City Council to make two months of back rent payments. Council members turned down a request for an additional $11,200 to help with operating expenses.

Council members said they would consider a loan for that sum if shelter officials resubmitted an application that detailed their plans for the money.

"We just can't say, 'Yeah, here it is,' without knowing what it's going to be used for," Mayor Nao Takasugi said.

Times staff writer Meg Sullivan also contributed to this story.

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